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From left: Alicen Moser, Roger Erb, John Wolbers, Mark Conrad and Michael Pierce in the West End Players Guild production of "Equivocation"

Photo by John Lamb

William Shakespeare (Roger Erb) has been commissioned to write a play about an unsuccessful treasonous plot. But the Bard — or Shagspeare, as he’s referred to in “Equivocation,” running through Sunday in a West End Players Guild production — is at his wit’s end. A fact-based account of the Gunpowder Plot could offend the king. But he can’t bring himself to betray the truth.

And there’s a bigger problem: The plot failed, which makes turning it into a spellbinding story problematic. That’s of little concern to the king's representative, Robert Cecil (John Wolbers), who wields his authority with diabolical glee and strongly urges the playwright to churn out something worth applauding.

As if that weren’t enough pressure, Shagspeare must also contend with his players, who just want him to continue generating material that mesmerizes the common folk. Desperate to deliver on his commitment, he considers substituting a tragedy that he’d discarded. The one about the dangerously ambitious Macbeth. 

Inspired by events surrounding the real-life Gunpowder Plot, with Shakespeare inserted into the scenario, playwright Bill Cain's comedy-drama is as much about theater in the Bard's time as it is about political intrigue. The play is at its best when depicting the backstage drama involved in putting on a show and the balance that a theater company must strike between being true to its art and pleasing its audience.

The play is less successful in maintaining focus — particularly in the second act, which drags on past several possible endings. And the one it settles on seems to come out of nowhere.

Yet as a celebration of theater, “Equivocation” has its merits, among them Tom Kopp’s imaginative direction and a terrific acting ensemble that also includes Reginald Pierre, Michael Pierce, Mark Conrad and Alicen Moser.

Despite its flaws, this is a witty and wonderfully insightful play and a must-see for fans of all things Shakespearean.